Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education.

by Helena Worthen and Joe Berry

It’s January 20, and Joe Berry and I are forty days away from our March 1, 2021 book deadline. Nevertheless, we turned on the TV to watch Joe Biden make his speech from the Capitol steps where only two weeks ago there were white supremacist rioters shoving each other around and posing for selfies. Enough said. Then it’s back to work.


The work at hand is as follows: bibliography, footnotes, acronyms, list of essential terms, make sure the last chapter says what it needs to say. Then re-write the introduction to accommodate the fact that since we sent our proposal in to Pluto, hoping to get into the Wildcat series, nearly a year has passed. During that year the coronavirus has gone world-wide jamming up schedules and turning education into an internet wonderland. Remember when people were talking about the end of “brick and mortar” colleges and universities as if that was the distant future? How our institutions of higher education will re-constitute themselves when things return to normal (whatever that means) will depend, as always, on who has the power at the moment. It’s time to ask the Freirean questions: For whom, by whom, and for what purpose? What is higher education for, really? And what do we, people who work in it, need in order to do our jobs right?


Back to the work. I haven’t mentioned the title, because that will probably come last. Right now we are vacillating between at least two. One simply tells what the book is about: The Contingent Faculty Movement Today: History, Strategy, and Troublesome Questions. That’s a pretty good one, actually. The words “troublesome questions” refer to questions that always come up in the process of organizing, whether it’s a new union just forming or one long established. We have questions like “Is this legal?” and “Who are our friends and who are our enemies? And “What about union politics?”  We respond to these at length, avoiding giving answers but laying out the range of ways these concerns can “trouble” a group of activists.


The second option, which was the original title, is A Fifth Transition: A Strategy for the Contingent Faculty Movement Today.  This reflects the fact that we’re doing not just best organizing practices but also the history of the contingent faculty movement going back to the 1970s. We then step back to a bigger time scale and place the last 40-50 years in the context of how the whole higher education industry has gone through transitions as it adapts to the needs of the dominant powers of society.  Examples are the period of standardization in the early 1900s, the explosion of enrollments under the GI bill after World War II, the creation of the multicultural curriculum and fields of ethnic studies after the student “disturbances” of the 1960s and 1970s, and then the transition that leads us into the present, the neo-liberal contraction of budget cuts, layoffs, the rise of the for-profit institutions and above all, casualization of the faculty – in other words, us.


This big-scale history section, although it’s the one that seems to be the flashiest concept to talk about,  is only one of the five parts of the book. We take a much closer look at our history – that is, the history of contingent faculty employment in higher education – by devoting four chapters to the story of organizing among Lecturers in the California State University system. In fact, that’s how the idea for the book got started. Joe has been appearing at contingent faculty conferences and other higher ed events for at least 20 years now, especially since the publication of his book Reclaiming the Ivory Tower:  Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education (Monthly Review, 2005), and at one of these events someone always asks, “What is the best contract for contingents in the US?”  He answers by telling them about what’s in the California Faculty Association contract with the CSUs, which is a giant system of 23 campuses and about 27,000 faculty, of whom over 70% are contingents (called Lecturers).  So the next question always is, “How did they get it?”  That’s what those four chapters are about, and without trying to tell the whole story here I can say that it started back in the 1970s and has taken place on legislative, bargaining, electoral, and internal organizing terrains. The breakthrough came when the lead activists realized – really got it – that they had to view themselves as workers just like any other workers, not as white-collar-privileged “professionals,” and adopt direct action tactics, publicly advocate for and identify with their overwhelmingly working-class students, and prepare themselves for a real strike.


There are other stories I can tell about what it’s been like to write this book, but I’ll limit myself to this: its first stirrings came about when Joe Berry was sitting out in the back garden with his long-time friend, John Hess, who was an organizer among Lecturers in the CSU system and had recently retired, only to get a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. Their conversations revolved around shared experiences organizing and leading contingent faculty and in the labor movement generally. Of course, one of them said, “We should write a book.”

That was ten years ago. John has since died; I took over his role as co-author. My relationship to getting things written – articles, books, whatever – is different from Joe’s. Joe is a historian; he can dwell in the archives for weeks, slowly accruing a grasp of what actually happened and building the big picture. I’m the one who says, “I’ll meet you at ten am at the kitchen table and we’ll finish the footnotes.”  We have some funny stories about this part of our relationship; our book about unemployment benefits for contingents, published by the Chicago COCAL and co-authored with Beverly Stewart, came about when I realized that he was on the phone with the State of Illinois person who administered the law, to whom he was explaining the intent behind the language “reasonable assurance of re-employment.”  We wrote that little book in order to be able to hand over something for a person to read, instead of Joe being on the phone all the time trying to explain it.

That’s part of the motivation behind this book, whatever it’s called: putting it all in one place, with bibliography and explanatory footnotes. Our hope is that if we get it in by March 1, Pluto will get it out while the re-constitution of higher ed is still fluid enough to be shaped by the power from below, from the people who really do the work and know what is needed in order to do it right.


Editor’s Note: Since writing this post, Helena and Joe have chosen a new title for their book: Power Despite Precarity:  Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education.


Helena Worthen is a novelist, teacher, editor, and contingent faculty activist. She is the author of the prize-winning 2014 book, What Did You Learn at Work Today? from Hardball Press, Brooklyn. She retired from the University of Illinois Labor Education Program in 2010, where she was Director of the Polk Women’s Labor Conferences.


Joe Berry worked as contingent faculty and labor educator for thirty years and was active in all three major faculty unions. He is the author of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower, from Monthly Review (2005).  He edits COCAL Updates for the Coalition of Academic Labor, where he serves on the International Advisory Committee and also on the Board of New Faculty Majority.

Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

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